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Pause Cave

                 Malek didn’t recognize Skeeter until he heard his voice. “Please hurry,” Skeeter was saying. “Please hurry!” He was at the Multioak library’s front desk, checking out a substantial stack of both books and DVDs. The woman working the front desk, who was not even a real librarian but just a volunteer, looked flustered, annoyed.

                Malek had seen the man who he now realized was Skeeter come in, had taken note of how thin the man was, how rapidly he walked, how large the armload of DVDs and books that he dumped into the “book return” slot in the front counter was. That had only been five minutes ago, if that. Had Skeeter seemed even somewhat familiar to Malek at the time? In retrospect, maybe he had. But considering how much Malek had been thinking about Skeeter in the last few days, surely he would have been primed to recognize him even more than usual. Which was a testament to how different Skeeter looked. How much his appearance had changed, somehow, in less than a week.

It had only been five days since Malek had last seen Skeeter. That’s when the argument had happened. The argument which Malek had spent every day since obsessing over, thinking most of all about how he would never apologize to Skeeter for anything he had said to him because Skeeter had so richly deserved to have those things said to him. Or shouted at him, which was what Malek had done. Shouted at him in public, surrounded by many witnesses, including Malek’s family and Skeeter’s family. It had been an ugly scene and Malek had apologized to many who had witnessed it, but he was firm in his commitment to never apologize to Skeeter, the actual target of the terrible things he had shouted.

                Or rather, Malek was firm in his commitment to never apologize to Skeeter for the things he had publically shouted at him right up until the moment when he recognized Skeeter at the front desk in the Multioak Public Library, at which point, overcome with pity at the sight of how drastically Skeeter’s appearance had degraded in a mere five days, Malek abruptly wanted nothing more than to apologize to Skeeter with all sincerity. He felt responsible for Skeeter’s apparent decline. Malek now realized that his commitment to never apologize to Skeeter had been predicated on the idea that Skeeter would never change, that he was too far gone to ever take Malek’s scathing criticisms to heart, but seeing the sorry state that Skeeter was now in, Malek felt that he must be responsible for it, that his scathing criticisms had penetrated Skeeter’s stubborn shell and touched his heart. More than touched: had maybe done permanent damage to his heart. Or if not permanent damage to his heart, then at least to his hair, skin, posture, and overall wellness.

                As Skeeter gathered his stacks of books and DVDs into his arms and turned from the front counter, Malek approached him, feeling contrite. “Skeeter,” he said, his voice even more contrite than he felt.

                “I don’t have time,” said Skeeter, blowing past Malek without looking at him.

                “Skeeter, wait,” said Malek, hurrying after him. “I understand you not wanting to talk to me. I get it.” Skeeter shouldered his way through the library’s front doors and stumbled his way down the steps, his armload of checked-out materials wobbling. Malek stayed close on his heels. “Skeeter, please. I want to apologize.”

                “Not now,” said Skeeter without looking back. “I have to get home.”

                “Skeeter, please,” said Malek. He reached out to clutch at Skeeter’s shoulder. He did it gently. But as soon as his fingers touched Skeeter’s shoulder, Skeeter jerked away in a manner that caused his precarious burden to wobble again, topple, and spill all over the sidewalk and onto the brown library lawn.

                “What are you doing?” shouted Skeeter, whirling to finally face Malek, his pursuer, his irritant, his enemy. “Why did you do that? I am losing time with every second that I’m out here.”

                “I’m sorry,” said Malek. “I’ll help you.” He crouched and began to gather books and DVDs. “I’m sorry about everything, Skeeter. What I said to you the other day. It wasn’t called for. I went too far.”

                Skeeter was on his knees, scurrying after the most widely-scattered of the books and DVDs. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “But if it’ll get you to leave me alone, then I forgive you.”

                “Look, don’t pretend,” said Malek. “I’m being sincere. I promise, this isn’t a setup. I really want to apologize. I really do.”

                Skeeter stood. Malek did too, balancing the books and DVDs that he had collected atop Skeeter’s pile. As he did, Skeeter finally gave him a long look. Then he said, “Um, Marek?”

                “Come on,” said Malek. “I’m being sincere.”

                “That’s not your name?” asked Skeeter.

                “You know my name,” said Malek. “Come on. It’s been five days.”

                “Five days since what?” asked Skeeter.

                “I gotta be honest,” said Malek. “You’re making this a lot more difficult than I expected.”

                “I’m sorry,” said Skeeter. “I’m…a lot has happened to me in the last few…days. I know that I know you, but, well…”

                “You don’t recognize me?” asked Malek. “I barely recognized you! But that’s because you look so different! You look terrible! I look exactly the same. Well, I got a haircut last night, but it’s the same one I always get. It was just a little trim.”

                “Well, whatever happened between us, I’m over it,” said Skeeter. “I have bigger problems. And now, seriously, I have to go. I have to.” He turned and rushed off, leaving Malek alone and befuddled on the sidewalk in front of the Multioak Public Library. Alone, befuddled, and yes, offended.


                Offended enough to get in his car and head for home without going back into the library to send the email that he had specifically gone to the library to send because the internet was down at his house for reasons unknown. Offended enough to, when almost home, suddenly change course and head for Skeeter’s house. Malek would resolve this issue. He would not spend another five days or more fixated on this conflict. He would not let the bitterness he felt at Skeeter’s bizarre reaction to his sincere apology do to him what he still believed his verbal assault had done to Skeeter.

                At Skeeter’s old, run-down, two-story house, Malek found Skeeter’s car parked in the driveway with its trunk open. The front door to Skeeter’s house was also propped open. Lights were on inside the house, but Malek saw no one as he left his car parked at the curb and crossed the lawn toward the porch. As Malek mounted the front steps, Skeeter came careening out of the house, almost colliding with Malek before dodging around him and running for his car. There he gathered as many bulging, plastic grocery bags as he could handle out of the trunk and ran back toward the house.

                “Skeeter,” said Malek. “We have to talk.”

                Skeeter pushed past him and ran into the house. He disappeared around a corner at the end of the front hall and a moment later Malek heard the sound of his footsteps thumping down basement stairs. Before he could decide whether or not to follow Skeeter into the house, Malek heard Skeeter thumping back up the basement steps. He again appeared at the end of the front hall, running toward Malek, but this time Malek stepped into the doorway to block Skeeter’s path, to force Skeeter to reckon with him.

                Skeeter skidded to a halt, his sneakers squeaking on the tile floor. “Get out of my way,” he said. “You’ve already cost me enough time. I did not invite you over.”

                “We need to talk this out,” said Malek. “For the good of both of us. We can’t just avoid it. This conflict will poison our souls. Maybe it already has.”

                “Tomorrow,” said Skeeter. “I’ll talk about it with you tomorrow.”

                “I’m here now,” said Malek. “We shouldn’t put this off. The anger that I expressed to you, I don’t know where it came from. We need to get to the bottom of it. Tomorrow I might wake up and brush this off. I might convince myself it will take care of itself. But right now, I know that it won’t. Right now, I know that we need to be proactive.”

                Skeeter looked like he might start throwing punches. Instead, he said, “Help me take the gas cans in my trunk down to the basement and then I’ll talk to you.”

                “All right,” said Malek. “I can agree to that.”


                Skeeter’s basement was a squalid hole. Malek struggled to wrestle the two large, full gas cans he’d taken from Skeeter’s trunk down the narrow, uneven basement stairs. Skeeter was ahead of him, also carrying a large gas can in each hand.

                “What’s all this gas for?” asked Malek.

                “Generator,” said Skeeter. He crossed the cracked basement floor to a white door set into the cinder blocks that comprised the far wall. “Bring those cans over. Hurry.” He opened the door just wide enough to set his cans inside, then turned to impatiently gesture Malek toward him. Malek crossed the dark basement, illuminated by – what else? – one bare lightbulb, and handed the gas cans to Skeeter, who accepted them, ducked through the door, and closed it behind him.

                As soon as the door closed, it opened again and Skeeter stepped out. But he looked different. He was wearing completely different clothes. Physically, he looked even worse: thinner, worse posture, more unhealthy. Also, his hair was longer. And his cheeks and chin were covered with gray stubble. In his arms was the stack of books and DVDs that Malek had just seen him checking out from the library less than an hour before. When Skeeter saw Malek, he shouted in surprise. Then the two men stood still and stared at one another, each baffled in his own way.

                “Who…what are you doing in my basement?” asked Skeeter. His voice was so feeble.

                “You told me we could talk if I helped you carry the gas cans,” said Malek. “How did you do that? How did you change so fast? That was, like, one second. Less than a second.”

                “Talk about what?” asked Skeeter.

                “About our argument!” said Malek, heated again. “About me shouting at you in front of your family!”

                “I don’t have time,” said Skeeter. “I have to get these materials to the library, get to the grocery store, the gas station.”

                “You promised,” said Malek. “Not two minutes ago. Up on your front porch.” He stood in Skeeter’s way, stepped closer, crowding him.

Skeeter took a step back toward the white door behind him, paused, then said, “Fine, just come in.”

                “To that room?” asked Malek.

                Skeeter didn’t answer, but he turned and fumbled with the doorknob while trying to balance the library materials in his arms. He failed. The books and DVDs fell to the basement floor. “Leave them,” said Skeeter. He opened the white door.


                “What is this room?” asked Malek.

                “This is my mancave,” said Skeeter. “Don’t you have a mancave in your basement or somewhere?” It was amazing how not at all in a hurry he suddenly seemed.

                “I do,” said Malek. “But it’s nothing like this.”

Skeeter’s mancave was in deplorable shape. It stank like stale human. It had a rough wood floor with a ratty rug thrown over it, rough wood walls, and a rough wood ceiling. The room was dark but for two candles in indifferently-installed sconces just to the right of the doorway which Skeeter had waited to light until both he and Malek were inside and the door was closed. There was a pile of blankets in one corner of the room and floor-to-ceiling cupboards lining one wall. Near the blankets, a combination-TV-and-DVD-player sat on a folding chair. It was plugged in to an orange extension cord which snaked across the room and out under another, smaller door which sat crookedly in its frame. The four gas cans that Malek and Skeeter had just carried down from the car were tossed haphazardly against the far wall and were all clearly, impossibly empty. There were a few articles of clothing littered across the rug.

“I don’t understand,” said Malek, his eye drawn back to the gas cans. Were they the same ones?

“What were we going to talk about?” asked Skeeter. “Remind me. We can talk about it and then you can go on with your, uh, day. Your life.”

“Are those the gas cans I just helped you carry down here?” asked Malek. “Where did the gas go? How did you change clothes so fast? Are you wearing a wig?”

Skeeter sighed and lowered himself down onto the pile of blankets as if it took a conscious effort to force his knee joints to bend. “None of that is why you came here to talk to me.”

“You look terrible, Skeeter,” said Malek. “What’s going on? Is any of this connected to what I said to you? And don’t pretend you don’t remember. That dismissive attitude makes me start to feel the same bitterness and anger that made me blow up on you in the first place.”

“I’m getting old,” said Skeeter, looking down at his own spindly legs. They were visibly spindly even inside his worn pants. “I’ve forgotten so much from even this morning. I forgot you were waiting right outside the door.”

“How is that possible?” asked Malek. “Did you get some kind of head injury?”

“Go look outside that door,” said Skeeter. He pointed across the room to the smaller door under which ran the orange extension cord.

Malek walked over to the door and pushed it open. It creaked. “I don’t see anything. It’s black.”

“You have a light on your phone?” asked Skeeter. “Use that.”

Malek shone the light from his phone into the darkness. It illuminated nothing. He shone it down at his feet and saw trash. Many, many discarded wrappers and cans. He shone it along the outside walls of the mancave, then straight up where he saw nothing. Was Skeeter’s mancave situated inside of a much larger cave? Malek followed the extension cord through the trash with his light and saw that it went around the corner at the back of the mancave. He kicked his way through the trash and shone his light around the corner where he saw the end of the extension cord plugged into a big, cold, silent generator. Malek returned to the doorway and looked in at Skeeter. “What is this place?”

                “A void with a floor,” said Skeeter. “Outside of time.”

                “What does that mean?” asked Malek, stepping back into the mancave, closing the door behind him, re-pocketing his phone.

                “I don’t even know,” said Skeeter. “Not really. I didn’t know it was here when we bought the house. I found it by accident. I built this room in the void because it’s unnerving to be surrounded by nothing but the void. I used to just use it for naps. Or if I had some boring paperwork to do. But since this morning, I’ve been living in here for, well, probably years. It’s hard to say, obviously. But it looks like I’ve aged years, right?”

                “Yes,” said Malek. “It does.”

                “Time doesn’t pass out there while we’re in here,” said Skeeter. “We’re aging while the rest of the world sits still.”

                Malek looked at his own hands as if expecting new wrinkles to already be appearing.

                “No, not like that,” said Skeeter. “We still age at a normal rate in here. But out there, time isn’t moving at all. That’s why I forgot you were standing there. When I brought the gas cans inside and closed the door, I stayed in here for months, probably. Eating my stockpiled food. Reading and re-reading those books. Watching and re-watching those DVDs until I was almost out of gas for the generator. Sleeping. Lots of sleeping. Or just lying in the dark and trying not to think about anything too important. But, you know, when the food runs out, I have to either come out for more or die.”

                “You’ve been doing this for years?” asked Malek. “Just since this morning?” He knew that Skeeter would understand what he meant.

                “Yes,” said Skeeter. “I don’t have much money left. We didn’t have much in savings to begin with. I’ve been trying to eat as little and as cheaply as possible. As you can probably tell. I wish gas prices were lower. I tried doing without the DVDs for a while, limiting myself to reading by candlelight – candles and lighters are cheaper than gas for the generator – but I got too bored. I never was much of a reader. I try, but I dunno. The library caps how much you can check out too.”

                “But why do this?” asked Malek. “You’re going to go from a man in the prime of his life to dying of old age in one day!”

                “But it doesn’t feel like one day to me,” said Skeeter. “It feels so, so long.”

                “But look how you’re spending it,” said Malek. “It’s worse than prison! You’ve basically sentenced yourself to solitary confinement. Why?”

                Skeeter furrowed his brow, looked at the empty TV screen. “I was delaying,” he said. “Stalling.”

                “Delaying what?” asked Malek.

                “Midnight,” said Skeeter. “Isn’t that dramatic?”

                “What happens at midnight?”

                “My wife leaves me for good,” said Skeeter. “And takes the kids with her. Unless I clean out the attic.”

                “So you’ve wasted years of your lifespan to put off cleaning out your attic?” asked Malek.

                “Well, at first I was putting off cleaning out the attic,” said Skeeter. “But sometime this evening, it became impossible for me to clean out the attic in the time that remained before midnight. It’d be nice if the attic was outside of time in a void with a floor too. Then I’d definitely have time to clean it out. I could clean it out in what would feel like less than a second to my wife. But no, it’s just a regular, messy attic. So now I’m not putting off cleaning out the attic. I’m just putting off the moment of my wife coming home and discovering that I didn’t clean out the attic despite her ultimatum.”

                “Not to mention how she’ll react when she sees the condition you’re in now,” said Malek. “How old you got.”

                “True,” said Skeeter. “That’s going to be awkward.”

                “Does she know how the mancave works?” asked Malek.

                “No, she refuses to come down to the basement,” said Skeeter. “When we bought the house, I promised her I’d finish it – carpet, a bathroom, that kind of stuff – but I never have.”

                Malek wasn’t sure what to say. He did what he often did in similar situations, which was seek to steer the conversation back to himself. “So you really don’t remember what I shouted at you the other day? In public? In front of your family?”

                “I dimly remember that happening,” said Skeeter. “But it’s a distant memory for me now. Hazy. If you’ll excuse the cliché, it feels like a dream. Remind me why you were upset at me?”

                Now that Malek knew that Skeeter probably wasn’t lying when he said that he didn’t remember the incident between them, he felt foolish explaining it to him. “You just upset me,” said Malek. “And I lost my temper and shouted at you in front of our families and a few bystanders. It was at the Diamond Food. By the paper towels.”

                “But how did I upset you?” asked Skeeter.

                “Well, the thing that upset me the most was how you just smirked as I got more and more heated,” said Malek. “You didn’t seem at all bothered that you had upset me. That’s what really got me going.”

                “But how did I initially upset you?” asked Skeeter.

                “You pointed at me and said that I looked like the guy on the packaging of one of the brands of paper towels. Then you tried to hold the paper towels up next to my face to prove it.”

                “Which brand?”

                Malek hesitated. “Malluck Brand,” he finally said. “Which, yes, my name is Malek, but it isn’t spelled the same. And I don’t look like the guy on the packaging. And it was humiliating to have you draw attention to me like that in front of my family. I barely know you. We’ve only met a few times at our kids’ programs at school. Once at church. It was an overstep on your part. You crossed boundaries.”

                “And you shouted at me for that?” asked Skeeter. “What did you shout?”

                “If you’ve forgotten it, I’d rather not repeat it,” said Malek. “Suffice to say, I compared you to some things pictured on packaging as well.”

                “So what do you want to do about it?” asked Skeeter.

                “Well, really…I just wanted you to accept my apology,” said Malek.

                “OK,” said Skeeter. “I do. And I’m sorry I compared you to the guy on the Malluck Brand paper towels packaging.”

                “Thank you,” said Malek. He turned to leave Skeeter’s mancave, but as he did, he felt another swell of pity for the man. “You said that you don’t have enough time to clean out your attic before midnight. But what if I helped you? Could the two of us clean it out before midnight?”

                “I don’t know,” said Skeeter. “Time passes so fast out there. Every time I go out, I have to keep checking the time to make sure it isn’t midnight yet.”

                “We could try, though,” said Malek. “Right?”

                “I suppose,” said Skeeter. “But there’s a little bit of gas left in the generator. Have you ever seen Gunwork? I got it on DVD from the library. As long as you’re in here, we’re not losing any time. So we could watch the movie and then go take a shot at the attic. Time-wise, it’d be no different than just going straight to the attic right now. But if we watch the movie now, we can relax a little before we build up to the hard part.”

                “Forget it,” said Malek. “I’m going home.”

                Skeeter hoisted himself back onto his feet. “I’ll follow you out. I was about to go get another round of supplies when I ran into you anyway. I’m starving. And if I don’t follow you now, you’ll still be just outside the door no matter when I decide to go.”

                “So why don’t we just go try the attic right now?” asked Malek. “Since you’re coming out anyway.”

                Skeeter gave him a weak smile. Not even a smile. Just a weak look. A look of pure weakness. “I’m just not ready yet,” said Skeeter. “I need to get my supplies first. As fast as possible. And I always need extra rest after a supply run.”

                “But you’re older and more feeble every time you come out,” said Malek. “You’re only going to be less and less physically capable of accomplishing it as the night goes on.”

                “Yeah,” said Skeeter. “I’m doomed. Since we’re both leaving now, will you carry the library stuff to the car while I carry the gas cans so I don’t have to take two trips?”

                On the way out of the room, Skeeter blew out the candles by the door. Malek looked back just before Skeeter closed the door to his mancave. Through the doorway, Malek saw nothing but the void.


                That night in bed, Malek lay still and felt himself age. He wondered how many times Skeeter had been in and out of his mancave since he had last seen him. How old was he now? How thin, how frail? At 10 minutes before midnight, Malek had a terrifying thought. If no time passed for the rest of the world while Skeeter was inside of his mancave, then that meant that time could only pass while Skeeter was outside of his mancave. Right? Was that right? Did that make sense? But Malek and the rest of the world would of course never notice the fact that time wasn’t moving while Skeeter was inside the mancave. To everyone else, time would feel like the same unbroken stream most people assumed it to be. But what if Skeeter died in his mancave, making it impossible for him to ever come out? Would time stop forever without anyone ever knowing? Did that make sense? Malek wished he were a physicist or a philosopher or something. Someone better equipped to think about this stuff. He looked at his clock. He saw it change from 11:50 to 11:51. He wondered if midnight would ever come. He would watch for it. He would pray for it.

Malek lay still and felt himself age. But as he aged, to his great comfort, so did almost everyone and everything else.

Discussion Questions

  • How aware do you think I am that “Mancaveman” is a lot like “Discomfort Shack” and “Pause Cave” is a lot like “Cocoon Room?”

  • Is there anyone who might deserve an apology from you but to whom you are committed to never apologizing but to whom you might be willing to apologize if you were to see them looking very bad?

  • Many voids in fiction have floors. What are those floors made out of?

  • How close would someone have to be to you for you to not lose your temper if they pointed out your resemblance to someone on a package of paper towels in public?

  • Would the fact that you looked like someone depicted on the packaging of a product make you more or less likely to purchase that product? What if the brand name of the product was also your name but spelled differently?

  • Do you know anyone who looks like anyone or anything depicted on the packaging of a product? Who is it and what/who do they look like?